CHAPEL HILL - Getting permission to go to the bathroom during class can be trouble enough for healthy children, but imagine how much more difficult it would be if you couldn't talk.
That's one of Travis Ward's many challenges.
Travis was born with cerebral palsy -- a disabling neurological and motor skills disorder -- and a genetic error in metabolism. The upbeat 16-year-old Durham native can't run, can't ride a bicycle and can't perform countless tasks so many other children take for granted, including talking.
This spring, as part of their training, biomedical engineering graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, worked to make Travis' daily life a little easier.
They designed and built a special battery-operated vest for him that includes pads with small chains he can pull when he needs to communicate with his Neal School teacher. When he pulls one, the vest plays a recording telling the teacher, "Yes." Another says, "No." A third pad says, "I'm thirsty. Can I get something to drink?" And a fourth says, "Hi. My name is Travis Ward." His teacher or parents can record other messages at any time, and more pads can be added as well.
"We spoke with special education teachers and therapists in the area to find out what sort of inventions they would like to have, but which did not exist," said Dr. Richard Goldberg, visiting professor of biomedical engineering at UNC-CH. "Then we researched the devices to make sure they did not exist and prepared a list of potential projects for graduate students to work on."
Goldberg, who earned his doctorate in biomedical engineering at Duke in 1994, teaches a class titled "Developing Custom Devices for the Disabled" for master's and Ph.D. students at UNC-CH's biomedical engineering department. Next spring, the class will open to applied science undergraduates.
Another project this year enabled therapists at Lakeview Preschool in Durham to encourage developmentally disabled children to do more exercises that boost their eye-hand coordination and muscle control.
"Therapists use commercial pop-beads to promote eye-hand coordination and muscle development in disabled children," Goldberg said. "However, many children become bored and distracted with the task of connecting the beads together to form links. Our students took plastic pop-beads, sawed them in half and put little circuits in them. When the children snap the beads together, they light up and play a song like 'Popeye the Sailor Man' or 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.'"
That positive reinforcement encourages children to continue the important activity, he said.
"One child got so excited by the beads he threw one across the room into a big sink full of water the kids play in," Goldberg said. "That was a bit of a problem since components in each bead cost about $27." "This was actually a very technically difficult project, and I was impressed at how well our students solved the problems," Goldberg said. "The battery was a huge issue, and getting everything to fit into such a small space was an issue too."
Whether the beads, now made by hand, could be mass-produced cheaply enough to market is a question, he said. Still, some toys are so expensive these days that a manufacturer might become interested, a possibility he and the students will explore later.
Last year -- the first time the course was offered -- students built an orientation device simple enough for blind preschoolers at the Governor Morehead Preschool for the Blind in Raleigh to use in finding their way around their classroom.
They also built 4-inch tall, modular boxes a foot-and-a-half square that children can get to light up, vibrate or play music by pushing on them with some strength. A third project relating to speech therapy and language instruction involved developing a digital version of a card reader that enables both teachers and students to read, record and play back sounds by inserting the appropriate index card into the device.
"The graduate students learn a lot, and I learn a lot too," Goldberg said. "Each project involves components I've never seen before."
Ava Ward, Travis' mother, said the "talking" vest enabled her son to be more mobile in the classroom by not having to stay in a wheelchair that has pre-recorded messages all the time.
"Because the vest is made of denim like any teenager would wear, Travis thinks it's really cool," she said. "These students have done something special, and we are grateful to them."
The above story is based on materials provided by University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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